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The Pickwick Papers | Themes

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The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens's first novel, began as a simple comedy. As it grew in popularity, however, he took the opportunity to make strong statements about the flaws he saw in society and the obligation of people to address those problems.

Law and Politics

Many of society's problems, as Dickens saw it, revolved around law and politics. He had worked in a law office as a youth and was a journalist covering Parliament for years. As a result of these experiences, he grew suspicious, even contemptuous, of lawyers and politicians. In The Pickwick Papers, lawyers and politicians are, for the most part, watching out for themselves rather than serving the public.

Politicians make a relatively brief appearance in The Pickwick Papers, surfacing during the ridiculous election in Eatanswill. Many of the people involved treat the election with intense seriousness, and yet no real discussion of issues takes place. Sam joyfully describes election antics designed to prevent voters from having their say, including drugging them with laudanum. In the end the "right" candidate wins, but he is the right candidate only because he is the one supported by the Pickwickians' social circle. His exact beliefs on anything are never made clear.

Lawyers play a much larger role in the book, particularly Perker, Mr. Pickwick's lawyer, and the unethical team of Dodson and Fogg. All the lawyers portrayed in The Pickwick Papers behave in an unsympathetic manner, all of them lie to their clients, and all of them want to make as much money as possible. Perker has his clerk lie to a client, claiming Perker is out of town. Then, a moment later, the clerk ushers Mr. Pickwick in to see him. The reason? The client is bothering them about his case. Perker can't understand why Mr. Pickwick won't just pay the damages and move on past the Bardell case. Later, when Pickwick wants to use his money to help Mr. Jingle, Perker is dubious at best.

Dodson and Fogg, too, are presented in an offensive way. They do everything they can legally do to win cases and get money for themselves. Their case against Pickwick is largely fabricated, but they know how to present it and they win. When they do not get their money from Mr. Pickwick, they jail Mrs. Bardell, insisting that she pay them. They regularly entice Pickwick to insult them, salivating over the opportunity to sue him for slander or assault or anything else that occurs to them.

Worst of all, neither lawyers nor politicians do anything about the horrors of debtors' prison. Debtors' prisons, as Dickens knew from personal experience, were a scam. Wealthier prisoners, like Mr. Pickwick, can pay the guards to obtain anything they want, including private rooms, alcohol, and fancy meals. However, the majority of the prisoners, who were only in prison because they couldn't pay a bill, were crammed into filthy rooms, half-starved, and mistreated whenever the guards felt like it. The election at Eatanswill has a lighthearted tone, but when the reader considers that the ridiculous Blue candidate might be able to change conditions in these prisons if he could take the time away from insulting his Buff counterpart, the true injustice strikes home.

Suffering of the Poor

Every Dickens novel addresses the suffering of the poor in some way. Dickens was greatly affected by his father's imprisonment for debt. In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens complains about a system that allows people to be ensnared and to suffer in a system they could never escape.

The Pickwick Papers is full of stories of good people who cannot escape from poverty or debtors' prison. When Mr. Pickwick and Sam are in prison, they both rent rooms from residents (the Chancery prisoner and the cobbler) who have suffered for years. The cobbler inherited money but spent so much in legal fees that he ended up in debt; the Chancery prisoner dies in debtors' prison. Dickens would revisit the themes of Chancery and legal fees again, most famously in Bleak House (1953). Many of the stories that Mr. Pickwick collects through the novel describe immense suffering because of poverty.

At the same time, Dickens shows that there are people living in poverty who do not care at all, such as some of the inhabitants Mr. Pickwick meets in debtors' prison. Other poor people turn to unethical methods of escape the privations of poverty, apparently willing to go to any extreme to avoid it. Mr. Jingle's escapades are a constant effort to stay ahead of his bills; when he fails, he ends up in prison and would have died there, if not for Pickwick. Mr. Pickwick hears stories of poor men who turn to drink or beat their wives. Dickens implies that these unfortunates might have made better choices if they were not trapped in their impoverished state.

Mr. Pickwick himself is a wealthy man; this keeps him insulated from some of the traumatic experiences of Dickens's other characters. He and Sam both experience the evils of poverty as observers, which perhaps makes it easier for the reader to relate to them. In fact, Dickens was responsible for bringing attention to the horrors of debtors' prison. The prison he and his family suffered in, Marshalsea, was closed in the 1840s, only a few years after The Pickwick Papers was published. Dickens often featured debtors' prisons in his work, notably in David Copperfield (1850) and Little Dorrit (1857).

Marriage and Love

Much of this novel focuses on love and marriage, which do not always, in this society, go together. Dickens seems to argue that marital problems occur when people marry for societal reasons, such as money or respect, but when people marry for love, happiness ensues.

Some unmarried people in the book wish to be married to obtain financial stability, or wealth. Mr. Jingle pursues several women and elopes with Miss Rachael Wardle because she has money of her own. Mr. Weller's second wife married him for the money he inherited from his first wife. She keeps tight control of the money during her life, but Sam and Mr. Weller inherit it after her death. That fact provides some consolation to the now-twice-widowed Mr. Weller.

Marriage can also boost a character's social standing. Miss Rachael Wardle doesn't accept the advances of Mr. Tupman and then Mr. Jingle because she needs financial support. Rather, she wants the improved social status that being married would bring her. Mrs. Bardell is overwhelmed when she believes Pickwick is proposing to her, partially because her status as Mrs. Pickwick would be greatly improved. This may also be why it never occurs to Pickwick that she could think he was proposing. As his social inferior, there would be no reason for him to propose to her unless he was madly in love with her.

Dickens argues that marriages for societal reasons do not work out. Mr. Weller warns Sam and anyone else who will listen about the perils of marriage, particularly marriage to a widow. When Mr. Pott hears that Mr. Winkle has married, he is sardonically pleased. Married men in the book—Mr. Pott, for example, and Mr. Hunter (whose wife is the poetess and hostess of the costume party breakfast)—often are made to look foolish by their wives. Mr. Weller suffers greatly when his wife becomes enamored with "the shepherd" and religion.

Not every marriage is negative, however. There are several happy weddings: Mr. Trundle and Bella Wardle, Mr. Winkle and Arabella Allen, Mr. Snodgrass and Emily Wardle, Sam and Mary. None of these marriages take place for societal reasons; no one benefits financially or socially. In fact, the Winkles' marriage threatens their social standing, since for a time it looks as if their families will cut them off. Since he himself was newly married during the writing of The Pickwick Papers, he may have felt personally invested in this theme.

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